Homeless camp sweeps in Puyallup illegally trashed personal belongings, lawsuit says

They lost clothes, medical records, a birth certificate and a GED.

Tents were bulldozed, along with medicine and family photos.

Now the owners have sued the city of Puyallup and Pierce County, alleging that sweeps of Puyallup-area homeless camps that destroyed their property were unconstitutional seizures.

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“Here, we believe that the city and county have violated the rights of people living without housing in Puyallup,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Tristia Bauman, who works for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 14 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, seeks unspecified damages.

Asked about it, Puyallup and Pierce County both said that they give notice before camps are removed and refer residents to services that can help them.

“When it is necessary to conduct a homeless encampment clean-up due to the clear presence of dangerous and unhealthy conditions, all affected persons are given ample notice and sufficient time to collect and remove their belongings,” the City of Puyallup said in a statement Friday. “They are also referred to resources and services which can assist them if they choose to accept such services.”

The city argued the lawsuit “contains false characterizations and numerous egregious misstatements of fact.”

Pierce County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich said in a statement that the county couldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but that: “... we take the needs and concerns of those experiencing homelessness with seriousness and respect. As a policy, we provide 30 days’ notice of an encampment removal, and place flyers and postcards at each known site.”

The county also contracts with teams that visit encampments to help connect residents with services.

“Those programs and services include support for those with behavioral health challenges and housing instability,” she said. “Our actions are based on the welfare of individuals living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and we make every effort to support a positive transition.”

The lawsuit contends otherwise.

It alleges the sweeps happen “often without giving any, or adequate and effective, notice, without offering any opportunity to challenge the carrying out of the sweeps, and without preserving the property seized for later retrieval.”

“Instead, Defendants simply discard and destroy the property seized,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants often clear entire sites, indiscriminately confiscating or destroying property and personal belongings by hand or with heavy machinery like bulldozers.”

That affected 57-year-old Nancy Boyle and 54-year-old Glenn Humphreys, who were living under a tree off the Foothills Trail in Puyallup in February 2016, according to the lawsuit.

Boyle has lived in Puyallup since she was 4 years old, and she worked as a nursing assistant at local hospitals until health problems forced her to quit in 2012.

Humphreys also grew up in Puyallup. He was an Air Force veteran, attended college and worked in construction.

They left their camp to stay in a cold-weather shelter when temperatures dropped below freezing and returned to find a three-day “notice to vacate” posted at their camp.

The next day, a police officer told them they had 15 minutes to leave.

“Humphreys asked for more time to move the couple’s belongings, but was told that they would not be given any more time and that if he did not leave, he would be arrested,” the lawsuit says.

A friend brought a van to help, but the location of the camp, not visible from the trail, didn’t make it easy.

The government crew allegedly threw things away while they were still loading the van.

That included tools Humphreys used for his work as a roofer, documents he needed to get Veteran’s Administration services, his Social Security card, and Boyle’s German birth certificate and naturalization papers.

The lawsuit gives a similar account of 34-year-old Jerome Connolly and 51-year-old Christian Rainey, who have lived in Puyallup for about 20 years.

Connolly lost his home after he suffered an injury at a construction job in 2015, which left him unable to work, and Rainey suffers from kidney failure and other significant health problems.

In 2016 they were living on land near 106th Street East and McCutcheon Road in Puyallup that wasn’t reachable by car.

They left the camp temporarily and returned to find it apparently bulldozed. Their tent and the belongings in it were crushed, and a sticky orange residue had been sprayed around, including on their things.

A notice posted near the camp, apparently from Pierce County, said someone had sprayed for noxious weeds.

Among the items destroyed were antibiotics Connolly was taking for an infection and Rainey’s psychiatric medicine.

“They never saw a ‘no camping’ or eviction notice,” the lawsuit said.

The most recent sweeps that are part of the lawsuit affected 50-year-old Nicki Wedgeworth and 55-year-old Terry Linblade, who were camped by the Puyallup Riverwalk Trail in 2017.

Wedgeworth has lived in Pierce County most of her life, and Linblade has lived in the area since 1981.

Police allegedly told them to move camp, then tossed family photos, a GED certificate, Wedgeworth’s mental health medicines and other packed items while the couple was in the process of moving.

They lost more belongings a few months later after police arrived at their new camp by the Riverwalk Trail, gave them a notice to vacate and allegedly swept the camp before the deadline.

The lawsuit says a 2017 report identified 1,628 Pierce County residents who were living outside, and Pierce County’s housing wait list had 1,652 people on it in July of this year.

There were 773 Puyallup residents who identified as homeless in roughly the past year, according to the complaint, and 430 students without stable housing in the Puyallup School District in 2016-17.

“There are far more people than affordable housing units and no year-round emergency shelter, just none that exists,” Bauman said of Puyallup. “.... There is literally no other place for them to go.”